What Kind of World Do You Want To Live in? Reflections on Equality and Recognition

In PATTAYA 24/7 the terrific 8th book in his internationally bestselling Vincent Calvino series of detective novels set in Southeast Asia, Christopher G. Moore writes: “The tolerance that acknowledged everyone was protected equally, including those with different skins, religions, and opinions, and that no one had the right to slaughter the ‘other,’ was a good tolerance. A country has grown up when its people have the ability to distinguish between the two.”

Tolerance is an interesting word and it’s something you hear a lot about in this day and age. It’s constantly mentioned in the media and on social media especially. I remember a time when the idea that everyone had the same rights no matter their skin color, religion, or opinions was something I took for granted. I grew up believing it because my parents demonstrated it daily. I never saw or heard either of them judge or look down on anyone for any of those reasons. I did hear them criticize people who acted like assholes, however. So I have always grown up believing in equality, and tried to treat everyone no matter who they sleep with, what their skin color, what they believe, or what opinions they hold with equality—the same way I want to be treated.

As I’ve traveled the world, I’ve time and again witnessed situations where people were treated differently because of all these things. In Africa and Southeast Asia, for example, the darker your skin, the lower your class. That is just assumed. People spend lots of money on products to whiten their skin. Women walk around under the sun with umbrellas to avoid tanning. The fact these attitudes were inherited from white colonial rulers who long ago were defeated and ejected from their countries isn’t something they think about. The attitudes are so engrained culturally now that it’s just how they think. No matter where it came from.

In Africa, there is still a great deal of attitude about homosexuality being unnatural and even a crime against society. You have an obligation to reproduce, to perpetuate the species. If you choose to “mate” with someone with whom you can’t fulfill the obligation, you are harming the community, not just yourselves. That’s an attitude I witnessed time and again. In the Philippines, much like the western world, Muslims are the enemy. Even though scattered numbers live amongst the larger population, you can find many people who fear them and regard them as violent and unstable because extremist Muslim groups have been fighting the government and killing, kidnapping, robbing, and harming foreigners and locals for 100 years. Since the Philippines is by and large Catholic, with a few Protestant denominations mixed in, Muslim are easily written off as having the wrong religion. I’ve never felt this way. I believe we worship the same God, myself, but I do see why under such circumstances, people come to hold that point of view.

Ironically, the other place I have found religious intolerance most common is in the U.S. amongst the arts community. Many times in the past people brought up my past religious activities and beliefs and used them to try and “cancel” or harm me, accusing me of all kinds of “-ists” and “-isms” that have never been part of my personal ideology or philosophy. My words were twisted, false meanings implied and spread around in attempts to silence me or write me off as irrelevant. I’ve seen others who are openly religious experiencing the same thing, and I know many others who keep their personal religion private for just that reason. To be honest, more and more of it is happening these days. It used to be white men in power who were the primary targets, but now people look to be offended and jump on the first opportunity to do so and make a stink. Ironically it is people who constantly talk about “tolerance” and demand it for themselves and their favored groups who seem to most practice such behavior. It doesn’t help that our leaders embrace extremists just to get elected. It doesn’t help that they empower people to say things which really are discriminatory and hateful about anyone who disagrees with them. The media loves it too, and they encourage it with their own rhetoric. But none of this represents tolerance by any definition I can find. It’s flat out discrimination and even verbal abuse or social media bullying. That it’s become common place is a result of people being more afraid of standing up against such awful behavior than they are of shutting down a bad behavioral pattern that hurts us all. In the last few years, thankfully, celebrities and others have spoken up about it. While some deny the existence of “cancel culture,” others fully recognize that it is a reality and one that does real damage.

Conflicts over differing opinions are leading to cultural divides in more and more places. Philippines, U.S., African nations like Ghana, Brazil, Venezuela—and many more. And to me, it’s sad to see. I find it really sad that neighbors and even family members are so adamant and angry that they’ve begun to regard each other as enemies and stopped talking. I’ve always believed what made “America” great was our ability to respect each other of differing views and seek compromises for a better way we all can live with. No, that has never been perfect, but it beats the hell out of the constant attacks and cancelling and name calling and other denigration and violent rhetoric that seem to bombard us daily nowadays. That kind of thing makes you want to retreat into a box, but how can one do that and still live?

To me, the answer is to practice true tolerance by a strict definition like Moore’s. Respect each other and agree to disagree, then learn to be comfortable with that. Ideological warfare has torn us apart with a “we must win it all or nothing” attitude. It’s truly less about tolerance and more about conformity. “You must agree with us to accept us” seems to be the mantra. But then how many parents agree with their kids’ attitudes and behaviors 100%? I can’t name a single one amongst my acquaintances, yet they’d still die for them because they love them so much. I have friends from all backgrounds and beliefs I love dearly. We have way more in common than we have different and we can enjoy each other and agree to disagree. As a society, we have forgotten our commonalities and focused on our differences, and in the process we have lost all sense of our common humanity. To me, until we get back to that, there will be no real tolerance, because real tolerance applies to everyone equally, not just those you agree with or deem “on the right side.”

In his amazing study of middle class-poor relations in Manila, THE PATCHWORK CITY, Marco Z. Garrido writes: “Understanding another person or group does not mean coming to see things their way; it does not entail agreement, but serves rather to clarify the basis of disagreement. Understanding means attempting to put ourselves in the place of others to ‘get behind’—to stand under or look up at—their perspective.” To do this requires empathy. And that is something many seem to find impossible today. They refuse to even attempt it. “No way those people can be empathetic,” some might say, “we are nothing alike.” And hence comes the core of the problem. As a travel aficionado and artist who likes to go out and meet readers, I run into people often who see the world very differently from myself, and yet there hasn’t been a single one I couldn’t find something in common with. In fact, more than one. To not see those commonalities is a conscious choice. Today, people choose to shut themselves off from “seeing” the other. And as Garrido clearly argues, recognition is part of accepting others. You can’t really tolerate another if you can’t recognize them as your equal. You cannot see someone as equal if you look down on them as less than you—less in intelligence, less entitled to their opinion, less capable of reasoning or deciding for themselves, less valuable, less human, etc.

I hear the term “on the right side of history” thrown around a lot by one side, but history is what we make it. History is happening around us twenty-four hours a day. So you can’t be on the “right side” of something that hasn’t finished happening yet. However, you can be actually tolerant as Moore defines it. You can choose to live with acceptance of people whether they are religious or not, whether they attend your church or not, whether their skin color matches yours or doesn’t, whether they sleep with men or women or both, whether they are rich or poor, whether they speak with an accent or not, whether they have your same first language or culture or not, or whether or not you share their opinions. You can choose to recognize their value as citizens, human beings, creations in the image of God, living beings, etc. That is something you can choose. And the world would be a better place if more of us did.

I’m not holding my breath. And I’m not going to say I have all the answers. I’m just saying this is how I choose to live. And whether people try and attack or persecute me or not that has not changed for thirty plus years. And it won’t. It’s who I am and who I want to be. The only people I choose to avoid or reject are assholes. People who consistently behave like assholes, that is. Everyone has off days, but people who show time and again their contempt and disrespect for others for any reason have no place in my world. What about you? What kind of world do you want to live in?

For what it’s worth…